On the eve of Passover, the sky over Boca Raton, Fla., seemed busier than JFK. Zelda and I watched from our outdoor table at Whole Foods as one jet after another soared through the pink clouds and landed behind the palms.
The New York-South Florida Jewish family route is as popular as ever, but times have changed: Holiday travel increasingly goes in both directions. On our own flight a week earlier, Zelda made friends with another toddler whose family was returning home to Boca, not visiting. “There are so many young families now, so much to do,” raved the mother.
Of course, South Florida has always boasted more than its share of family diversions. Back in the ’80s, my parents took us to all the biggies: Monkey Jungle, Lion Country Safari, Metrozoo, the Everglades, Disney World.
But those are ambitious, all-day excursions. As Zelda, my parents and I all discovered, Greater Boca abounds in low-stress, delightful activities you can do in a morning, or in the hours before dinner. Parking is free; admission is cheap or free.
Our first stop: the Arboretum at Constitution Park, a tropical oasis hidden where you’d never expect it — off the strip-mall traffic of Hillsboro Boulevard in neighboring Deerfield Beach.
I’d always noticed paths winding through inviting greenery, but the park has gotten a lot of love from local gardeners lately. Strolling a half-mile trail through shady palms, Zelda marveled at lush thickets full of ibis and cranes, ogled a turtle lounging brook side, frolicked in a “rainforest” garden and enjoyed a well-maintained children’s playground.
The next day, we headed downtown. Boca has that manicured look that connotes Sun Belt affluence: pink stucco buildings in the ersatz Mediterranean vein, immaculately coiffed crepe myrtle, parking lots full of gleaming SUVs.
Which makes the Boca Raton Children’s Museum such a delightful surprise. Tucked into a grove of banana and mango trees on a sleepy back street is Singing Pines, a 1912 white clapboard house-turned-museum with a painted porch and a wide, shady lawn — a rare vestige of Old Florida on the Gold Coast.
It would have been delightful even had it not turned out to be everything you want in a children’s museum: colorful play installations in small, homey rooms, not too many of them. At three, Zelda was clearly the target demographic for the museum’s daily story-time and art workshop.
We had less luck at Gumbo Limbo, a popular nature center set amid mangrove thickets on the A1A barrier beach. A wholesome, educational feel pervades displays of turtles, butterflies, and native plants. Without an interactive element, though, all of us were quickly bored by exhibits showcasing the same fauna we’d encountered at the park.
But the next excursion was a winner. Sugar Sand Park boasts a similar setting to Gumbo Limbo — wooden buildings, tropical forest — yet feels infinitely more inviting. The first thing you notice is a big, old-fashioned carousel; the next is the three-story Science Playground, with all sorts of ramps for climbing, a splash park, and plenty more for toddlers through teens.
One building is the Science Explorium, a small but joyously interactive (and free) museum with traveling exhibitions on topics like engineering. Another structure houses the Willow Theatre, where various local companies present year-round plays for adults and children (next week, I may take Zelda to “Star Stories,” about ancient Greek constellations).
As the huge Florida sky filled with pink and mauve clouds, we drove south along the Intracoastal Waterway, past gated mansions and aging high-rises, until we reached Hillsboro Inlet Park. This facility has all the basics — a decent playground, picnic tables, benches — but with several wow factors that set it apart.
The park sprawls along the shore where the Intracoastal meets the ocean, with a front-row view of boats gliding by. A historic lighthouse is just across the strait … and the biggest prize of all is a drawbridge.
Even after all these years, the sight of a street rising into the sky inspires awe. Zelda watched, wide-eyed, as the bridge yawned open and several huge yachts sailed through the inlet. As if on cue, a pair of pelicans unfurled their massive wings and dipped in front of us.
I’ll admit: Nature is not so much my thing. I can’t wait until Zelda is old enough to get excited about an art museum, or a five-hour opera. But until then, you can certainly fill a week in Boca with all the turtles, cranes, gardens, playgrounds and museums a child could crave.